Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 28 July 2012

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Ofcom, the body that regulates the communications industry, says that for the first time people in Britain prefer texting or sending emails to each other to talking on the telephone. Telephone use fell by an amazing 5 per cent in 2011, while over 150 billion text messages were sent in the same year, more than double the number four years earlier. This is a dramatic change, but one that nobody seems to have particularly wanted. Young people — those between 16 and 24 — told Ofcom that they would prefer to discuss things with others face to face, but somehow they don’t do so; instead, 96 per cent of them communicate daily with friends and family with text messages of one kind or another.

Oldies like myself (I’m 72) have been slower than the young to plunge into the world of electronic communication, but we are rapidly catching up. Ofcom found that the largest increase in internet use was among 65- to 74-year-olds, up 9 per cent in one year (compared with 1.6 per cent in the general population). And once you start texting, it can become addictive. Conversation involves listening as well as talking, whereas texting or emailing enable you to make your point without anyone answering back; and if you subsequently get a reply you don’t like, you don’t have to respond to it if you don’t want to. 

Furthermore, the telephone has become less and less pleasant to use. The calls you receive may be from unknown people trying to sell you things, and those you initiate are often greeted by recorded voices that, in the case of companies, offer you a confusing choice of options and hideous musical interludes during your long wait for a reply. Emails or text messages have come to seem very attractive alternatives. But they are not the most efficient way of making arrangements. To agree to meet someone in a particular place at a particular time can take half a dozen text messages when it could easily have been sorted in a brief telephone call. But it’s rather like owning an electric dishwasher — you feel compelled to use it, even when it would be quicker, cheaper and less troublesome to wash up a couple of dishes by hand.

Paradoxically, the easier it becomes to communicate with anybody anywhere, the more vapid communication becomes. The letter is now almost dead, and the contemporary equivalent of the old-fashioned love letter is a text message reading ‘i lv u.’ The finickiness of typing with one’s thumbs on a tiny virtual keyboard is a guarantee of extreme terseness. Emails are different. They are just as easy to write as a letter, and there is no reason why they should not just be letters, delivered electronically instead of by van. But they have developed their own style of breezy informality, reflective of the ease and speed with which they are sent and received. Care and effort in the writing of an email seem somehow inappropriate, and most emails now start with ‘Hi!’

I have yet to grasp the point of the web-based social networks that are the other great vehicles of communication for millions of people all over the world. I did once register with Facebook, though I can’t remember why (probably just out of curiosity); and since then I have responded in the affirmative to people asking to be my ‘friend’ (provided they are friends already) because it would seem rude not to. But beyond that I have made no use of it at all, mainly because of not knowing how. My vague impression, though, is that most people use Facebook and Twitter to tell everyone else what they have been doing and to show them their holiday snaps, and these are things that I have no wish to bore others with. 

Another interesting finding by Ofcom is that the average British household now owns three different types of internet-enabled device — laptop, smartphone, tablet etc. — and that 15 per cent own six or more. I conform to the average, having a laptop, an iPhone and a Kindle, each of which I like very much. I have become especially fond of the Kindle, given me for Christmas by one of my daughters, for its ability to deliver me any book instantly on the smallest whim. Staying recently with friends in the south of France, I had to leave when still only halfway through a book at my bedside, but found I could order it up from Amazon and continue reading it on the flight home. But I can’t imagine why anybody would want six such devices, unless it just be a symptom of a frantic desire to communicate for communication’s sake, and in the process forget how to communicate at all.